Many on the right think President Obama’s Oval Office address last night should have credited “the Surge,” and they would have preferred thanks to his predecessor for taking and implementing a decision that Senator Obama and others fiercely criticized. The left would have preferred a more ringing indictment of the Bush Administration, and a “never again” promise. The war’s strongest supporters will, with notable exceptions, remain convinced that going to war was the right decision, that its positive effects are under-appreciated, and that the unknowable alternative history would likely have been at least as violent, and more difficult to influence. The war’s strongest critics will remain convinced that going to war was undeniably the wrong decision, that any positive effects could have been achieved or even outbid by other means, and that the unknowable alternative history might have been much less violent and expensive, and have allowed America to retain much greater influence and freedom of action. No one knows for sure where actual history is leading, but everyone is prepared to blame someone else if things go poorly, and all will feel fully justified in their own eyes.
The President chose to let left and right cancel each other out:
As I have said, there were patriots who supported this war, and patriots who opposed it. And all of us are united in appreciation for our servicemen and women, and our hope for Iraq’s future.
It was his demeanor, called “half-hearted and detached” by one as-ever implacable critic, that expressed and may have resonated with a broader public sense of exhaustion regarding the whole subject. He seemed to be saying, “We’re working hard to make the whole thing as boring and forgettable as possible.” He did not promise “never again,” possibly because he is not in a position to keep such a promise, otherwise because for the foreseeable future an Iraq Syndrome ought to handle the matter anyway. With 50,000 troops still in Iraq and in a re-negotiable position, with 100,000 troops in Afghanistan – and still an angry, self-righteous, globally committed, and incredibly well-armed nation – the U.S. will remain involved in wars and warfare, but we are, for now, exceedingly unlikely to undertake a new major military expedition except as a true last resort, and we are even less likely, next time, to assume an ability to change regimes and contain aftermaths. The experience of the ’00s has erased the imperial hubris inherited from the ’90s on both economic and military fronts. Call it our intellectual war dividend: Revolutions, we now recall, are not always, or even usually, velvet ones. Wars, we now recall, do not always, or even usually, end more quickly and at less cost than predicted. And, incidentally, incomes, revenues, and stock and property prices, we now recall, do not always, or even usually, rise continuously. In this sense Iraq was just one self-chastening among others.
My personal view remains that we were destined to become deeply, bloodily, and expensively engaged in and around Iraq: Too much unfinished business, too much political, economic, and moral involvement. Following 9/11,with both our fear and our blood still high, our confidence boosted by a seemingly easy victory in Afghanistan, we chose to act rather than react, to pre-empt rather than retaliate, to take the dice in our own hands rather than bet on someone else’s throw. To indulge for a moment in a-what-might-have-been, if we had not acted when we did, then, sooner or later, by whatever concatenation of collapses or aggressions, we would have found ourselves on propinquitous ground, sea, and air taking and giving heavy fire anyway. The world economic and political system or “order” that we uphold and depend upon is itself too dependent on what flows out of the geographical Gulf for us to abide indefinitely all of those other gulfs: the gulf in our knowledge, troubling gaps in our sense of control and predictability, the increasingly intolerable moral chasm in our then existent policy. Nature abhors a gulf of gulfs, and “if we knew then what we know now” is a vain exercise, since we never would have learned what we now know except by having acted, suffered, and desperately fought to rescue ourselves. Compare what our armed forces, the political class, and the interested public now have learned about Iraq and environs, and all related issues, as compared to what we generally knew in the year 2000. Operation Iraqi Freedom was as much an exploratory expedition as a “real war” – for the country – if too real for our carefully counted soldiers and much less carefully counted budget.
As for the Iraqis, it is an index of our former naivete, insuperable except by experience, that we hoped to “give” them freedom, and, through their happy example, to spread it to the rest of the Arab and eventually the Islamic world. We simply allowed ourselves to forget what our own history would have taught us, if only anyone ever learned from history. Maybe deep down we remembered, but put it out of our minds -choosing to believe (not all of us, but easily enough of us) what we needed to believe. You can say we chose to trick ourselves into acting, and, even though we saw the bucket of water placed strategically above the partly open door, we decided to blunder forward anyway. Except the bucket was full of blood, and most of it Iraqi, the critics will say – and they are right. Yet can anyone with much knowledge of the history of the region pretend that the violence and destruction would likely have been avoided for very long? That they weren’t bleeding out month by month already – with an ever-present option on the next catastrophe, against a background of misery and despair? That goes for the violence and destruction of the first liberation, the liberation from Saddam – it had to come someday; it goes for the violence and destruction of the second liberation – from foreign masters and would-be masters, including but not limited to us; it goes for the violence and destruction of the third liberation, from the “thousand Saddams” that now compete in Iraq for position.
By intervening as we did and how we did, we helped set the timetable of revolutionary violence and put ourselves in place to absorb and channel it, but it may be another form of hubris to assume anything more. Here is the simple summary that the President supplied, using terms that his predecessor might just as well have used, putting a hopeful emphasis on how Americans enabled Iraqis to take their fate into their own hands:
The Americans who have served in Iraq completed every mission they were given. They defeated a regime that had terrorized its people. Together with Iraqis and coalition partners who made huge sacrifices of their own, our troops fought block by block to help Iraq seize the chance for a better future. They shifted tactics to protect the Iraqi people; trained Iraqi Security Forces; and took out terrorist leaders. Because of our troops and civilians – and because of the resilience of the Iraqi people – Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain.
The difficulty for Americans, especially for onetime proponents of the war like myself who hoped for a simpler, smoother, and much less costly transition – though who had been willing to contemplate a much costlier initial battle – was coming to understand why the Iraqis themselves were so resistant to seizing that historical opportunity and acting in their own collective interests.
So here is what I think we have re-learned, and had to re-learn: Prior to “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” as the name emphasizes, the Iraqis were un-free. They were unprepared and perhaps unwilling to enter history as free human beings, and, though we removed one seemingly insuperable obstacle, the terror regime, we could not relieve them of the struggle that alone gives meaning and, potentially, durability to freedom. Without us, the Iraqis might have put off a new effort of self-liberation for many years. They might never have gone the final distance as a people (or set of captured peoples), but such a description ignores the extent to which they were held back and hemmed in, trapped by history at the cradle of civilization, at the crossroads of the world, on an ocean of oil, and at the same time pushed forward by larger forces – the same ones that gave Saddam his weapons and his dreams, the same ones that enslaved the Iraqis together in a “republic of fear,” the same ones that made the world so interested.
“Operation Iraqi Freedom” could therefore only have ever meant a willed confrontation with catastrophe. We can take this knowledge with us on the next “operation,” and there will very likely be a next one, different because of our additional knowledge and our new cautions, but sooner or later on the same terms.